Raiders Of The Lost Ark: The Adaptation truly has to be seen to be believed. In the summer of 1982, three pre-teen kids in Mississippi—Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb—decided to make a shot-for-shot remake of Steven Spielberg’s movie, almost entirely from memory. (Home video didn’t really exist yet when they started, so they had no means of revisiting the original, apart from a brief re-release.) This endeavor wound up consuming the next seven summers of their lives, all the way through high school and into college. It was then forgotten until 2002, when director Eli Roth, who’d received a VHS copy from a friend years earlier, brought it to the attention of Harry Knowles, who showed the first 45 minutes or so during a meal break at that year’s Butt-Numb-A-Thon festival. The Adaptation quickly became a cult sensation, with screenings in various cities across the country. Spielberg himself saw it and met with the now-grown filmmakers to tell them how inspiring he found their youthful enthusiasm. And then it was forgotten again, in part because copyright issues make an ordinary DVD release and/or streaming deal impossible.
That’s a shame, as every Raiders fan should experience The Adaptation, marveling each time those crazy kids succeed in replicating a scene (most notably the lengthy truck chase in the desert) that would seemingly be impossible for teen amateurs to pull off. One scene genuinely was too much for them: They never did manage to film Indiana Jones (played by Strompolos in their version—part of the fun is watching his age change repeatedly over the course of the movie, which was shot out of sequence) facing off against a musclebound bald Nazi, inches away from a spinning airplane propellor. Raiders!: The Story Of The Greatest Fan Film Ever Made chronicles the trio’s belated effort, just a couple of years ago, to finally finish the project they’d begun over three decades earlier. At the same time, the documentary serves as an oral history of their teenage adventures, with participants reminiscing about the time they very nearly burned Zala’s house down filming the scene in which Marion’s bar goes up in flames, for example. Fair-use clips from The Adaptation provide at least some sense of what a mammoth undertaking it was.
For a while, Raiders! seems like a poor substitute for the real thing. The oral-history aspect is standard talking-heads material (bizarrely edited by Barry Poltermann and co-director Tim Skousen, who for some reason keep fading out on heads while they’re still talking), and the present-day shoot of the long-missing airplane scene lacks the adolescent charm that’s always made The Adaptation so much fun—now it’s just a group of middle-aged dudes trying to achieve something without the requisite knowledge or experience. As the shoot repeatedly gets rained out, however, and Zala attempts to negotiate extra vacation days from his day job (with a boss who’s clearly fed up with the whole thing and on the verge of firing him), the extent to which these men are still consumed with the abandoned dreams of their youth lends the movie a certain poignance. Orson Welles famously called filmmaking “the biggest electric-train set any boy ever had,” and Raiders! captures that spirit without inviting the mockery that, say, American Movie does. Yes, these guys are in their 40s now, working with an actual effects crew, but they’re still essentially the same ardent idealists, determined to make the impossible happen. Spielberg would surely still approve.